When I caught up with Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) Senior Programmer Mickey Duzdevich by phone last week, opening night was less than a week away. But somehow, he managed to sound fresh and enthusiastic. “This is actually a great time,” he told me, adding, “I’m looking up at a scheduling board that represents seven months of work, and now that part’s all done.” Duzdevich, who is in his eleventh season with the fest, works on a team that includes Executive Director Roger Durling, Programming Director Michael Albright, programmer Whitney Murdy, and outside programmers Russ Spencer and Mashey Bernstein. The film festival receives approximately 3,000 entries annually, and together this group evaluates them, simultaneously judging their quality and organizing the films that are chosen into the competitions and categories that give the frantic short fortnight of the actual festival shape and meaning. It’s a massive undertaking that’s fraught with confusion and controversy, and Executive Director Durling is known for the high expectations he brings to the process. “Roger makes it clear that it must rotate,” said Duzdevich, referring to the shifting array of sidebars that complement the more stable lineup of competitions, which are themselves subject to the occasional modification or revision.
While there’s no way to ignore the sheer range of the festival’s offerings — eight tributes, 10 sidebars, six competitions, 10 shorts programs, three panels, three educational programs, and six free admission programs … and that’s a rough count — it’s easier to miss the degree to which many of these categories were developed in response to the needs and interests of the citizens of Santa Barbara. For example, Duzdevich points to the seven feature films vying for a prize in the new Nordic Cinema Competition. They come from a region where robust national film institutes have the resources to fly filmmakers to Santa Barbara, but Duzdevich, who was personally responsible for developing this category, cites his motivation for cultivating the Nordic niche as an awareness of the large community of students from Norway, Sweden, and Denmark currently matriculating at UCSB and SBCC. With their stringent “premieres only” requirements and the potential to launch winning films to the next level of international attention, the competitions tend to attract many of the festival’s strongest films.
The Kolnoa sidebar offers another example of how the festival’s programming responds to the community. Outside advisor Bernstein got into the SBIFF mix when the city’s Jewish Film Festival, which he also programs, temporarily disbanded. Kolnoa was conceived to fill this cultural void, but when the Jewish Film Festival bounced back, Bernstein shifted its focus to films from and about Israel, and Kolnoa continued.
Murdy was a young intern when she came up with the idea for Cinematic Overtures, a very popular sidebar devoted to films about performances in music, theater, and dance. Sensing that the performing arts are a major component of Santa Barbara’s civic DNA, Murdy has brought in films for that sidebar this year that range in subject matter from Dominican reggaetón (Jeffrey) to drag ballet (Rebels on Pointe). Another fan favorite, the Noir sidebar, undergoes a revision this year and returns as the Crime Scenes category, with a focus on international examples of the crime thriller genre. Finally, no description of the festival’s awareness of its area audience would be complete without mentioning three perennial hits hereabouts: the Santa Barbara Features and Shorts; Reel Nature, a documentary sidebar on the environment that’s dedicated to the memory of Mike deGruy; and Screen Cuisine, the cinematic home to our city’s fascination with food.
As an organization, the SBIFF may have one foot planted firmly on the red carpet that leads to the Oscars, but with these talented and visionary programmers on staff, we can trust that the other will remain nestled in the soft sand of our beach community’s specific pleasures and concerns.